One of the Spanish words I’ve learned in the last couple of months is “caro,” which means “expensive.” Coming here from Mexico, I’ve found it to be an apt term to describe Costa Rica. “Caro” is also used as an endearment (just like “dear” in English can mean either expensive or express affection) and after nearly ten weeks here, I have to say the term is apt in that regard as well.
But this post is not the unexpected “bonus time” we’ve had in Costa Rica as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic (you can find out about that in my last three posts). It is about the first four weeks we spent here, our four planned weeks. And, as planned, those weeks were pretty fantastic.
Upon arrival at Costa Rica’s San Jose International Airport (which is not actually in the city of San Jose, but a suburb about 30 kilometers away), we grabbed an Uber to the bus station for the MEPE bus service to the southeastern part of the country (Limon, Cahuita, and Puerto Viejo).
We arrived with plenty of time to purchase our bus tickets to Cahuita and enjoy our first traditional Costa Rican meal at the soda (what they call casual restaurants here) attached to the bus station. We each ordered local specialties – pollo arroz for Chad and a casado with egg for me. Both were surprisingly good and very hearty, which was good since we were facing a 4-hour bus ride.
Though the ride was long, it was uneventful and it was dark but not too late when we met our host at our cabina duplex. He lives on the other side and was a friendly Frenchman. It was a rustic but good accommodation for a week (review below). We picked up some groceries and settled in.
The next morning, I was awakened at 5:30 a.m. by a moaning roar sound reminiscent of a dinosaur. A little Googling informed me that the animal making that noise wasn’t a leopard or a wild boar, but a monkey! Namely, howler monkeys. Our first encounter with Costa Rican wildlife. We wasted no time in making our first visit to Cahuita National Park that morning, just a couple of blocks from our cabina. We were a little disappointed to learn there is a donation expected each time you visit, so it would not be a daily walk site for us, but we gamely handed over 5000 colones and had a great one-hour walk on its single trail. And, saw a troop of capuchin monkeys! One day in and we were already deep into the wildlife.
The other big attraction of Cahuita is the beach, and we found several opportunities to enjoy it as well. The climate is hot and there weren’t a lot of trees beyond the national park, so there wasn’t much opportunity for hiking, but in addition to the beach we did a full morning hike from our end of Cahuita National Park to the far end in Puerto Vargas, and then caught a bus back to Cahuita. It was a lot of fun (though hot!) and we enjoyed a PBJ picnic halfway through at Punta Cahuita.
Chad had been hoping for good snorkeling in Cahuita, but the main beach, Playa Negra, had too many waves, and the other beach was in the national park and seemed to discourage snorkeling. There were many snorkel tours on offer, but we had plenty of other things to occupy us.
It was a great week in Cahuita, but between the rustic accommodations, limited grocery stores (really nothing more than three good-sized minimarkets, so we had to make do with our most basic recipes), and few walking trails, it would not have been a great location for a longer stay for us. But we got plenty of work done and there was plenty of access to wildlife. We saw a mama sloth with her baby at the beach and the capuchins visited our cabina most days, with one scampering back and forth over the roof and peering down at us on the porch.
Bri Bri Tour
One more highlight of our time in Cahuita was one of my Christmas gifts to Chad, a chocolate tour of the Bri Bri indigenous tribe. It was a great tour and I’d recommend the company, Willie’s Tours (though our guide was a bit of a character, as mentioned here). I’ll let the photos do the talking about the bulk of the tour.
From Cahuita, we took the bus back to San Jose, then walked a couple of blocks to another bus station to get the Transmonteverde bus. We had a few hours of downtime in the bus station to have lunch (yummy veggie burritos) and get some work in. But two four-hour bus rides in a day is a lot! We arrived after dark in Monteverde and unfortunately, there were no taxis or Uber available so we had to haul our big suitcases up a couple of hills and down a gravel road to pick up our Airbnb keys at a local hostel. This Airbnb was a small house and though it was a couple of blocks from the hostel, the host helped us drag our luggage over. It was far less rustic than our Cahuita home and we found an actual supermarket in Monteverde. We stocked up on groceries and bought some fish to prepare for dinner and had no trouble settling in.
Monteverde’s main attractions are its cloud forests and we were able to arrange visits to two through the hostel. Because the area is mountainous and spread out, there are private shuttle vans that will take you for a low price ($4 roundtrip for one and $5 roundtrip for another) at set times to the forest parks. The host made those arrangements for us and the two mornings we went out to the parks they picked us right up at the hostel. We were super-impressed with the whole hostel experience (especially since we were able to stay in a comfortable house while reaping the benefits of the hostel services) and my review is below.
The two cloud forest parks we visited were quite different, and we preferred the first, Santa Elena Forest Reserve, to the more popular and pricier Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. Santa Elena was $16 per person and Monteverde was $25 per person and both accepted credit cards. We took the earliest shuttle out to each and had Santa Elena nearly all to ourselves. But both were worth seeing and provided memorable hikes, though not a lot of wildlife spotting. Luckily we’d seen plenty of wildlife in Cahuita and so were more interested in enjoying the interesting ecology of being in a cloud forest. The photos don’t do it justice.
Finally, after four nights in Monteverde (which was plenty), we took the van-boat-van (although actually the vans were busses) to La Fortuna. Though the distance between the two areas is fairly short (in fact, I think they’re technically within the same rain forest), there is no easy way between them and limited public transportation options. However, plenty of companies offer this private transfer and though it was another long journey, it got us there. And the boat ride was kind of fun.
In La Fortuna we had an apartment in a small complex, again with the hosts right next door. They were a kind and friendly couple and we were very happy with our 20 days there. It was a small apartment, and small kitchen, and the kitchen table had to serve double-duty as Chad’s desk, but the location was great. Review below.
We had gotten a bit behind on work, especially with the start of my class right around the corner, so a lot of our initial time in La Fortuna was devoted to catching up. We also wanted to save many of our activities for our final week there, when my friend Sara was scheduled to join us. Of course, coronavirus changed everyone’s plans, including Sara’s, but we were still able to fit in several fun activities (though it would have been more fun with her!). And established a very nice routine of utilizing the nice public track. We were also greeted with a carnival in town our first weekend, the Fiestas Fortuna, which was some bonus fun and provided a memorable Costa Rican carnival meal.
Highlights were a hike out at El Silencio park, where we saw monkeys again, and which we followed up with a picnic lunch and dip in the free hot spring. Since we didn’t have a car, we took an Uber out to the park and then had to walk back toward town enough to find an open wifi signal at one of the resorts to be able to call an Uber to take us home, because there was no cell coverage. The hot spring was definitely a great experience and one of the main attractions of La Fortuna. It was our first experience with one.
The other big highlight was visiting “el salto” on my birthday, a river swimming hole where the locals have set up an awesome rope swing (that I was too scared to try, but Chad jumped from it a couple of times). We also visited a sloth sanctuary that was only so-so and had some nice walks around town, especially with views of the Arenal Volcano.
My favorite activity was a trip out to a thermal hot spring resort just after my birthday. It was our next-to-last activity before the coronavirus started shutting everything down and we had a fantastic time enjoying the natural warm water. It was very nicely designed and after enjoying their two hot springs, the regular pool, and the sauna, we also had a great dinner in the restaurant.
It was a good life in La Fortuna, but with all the parks so expensive (we only visited the one, which was a steal at only $8 per person), when we decided to stay in Costa Rica, we also decided to move on to another part of the country. You can read all about that here.
If we had left on March 21 as planned, we would have felt very satisfied with our time in Costa Rica. I’m glad we got to see and do so much during that time, since during the stay-at-home orders required for the pandemic we haven’t had many opportunities. Costa Rica is a truly dear place (in every sense of the word).
Cahuita Airbnb – Very good place to stay in Cahuita, so close to the Cahuita National Park and an easy 2-minute walk from the bus station and also the main downtown part of Cahuita with lots of restaurants. The kitchen was equipped enough for light cooking, the bed was comfortable, and the outdoor space was very nice. Wifi wasn’t very fast but it was very consistent. We loved waking up to the sound of howler monkeys and enjoyed having a capuchin monkey in the yard in the afternoons.
Monteverde Airbnb – Very comfortable little house. Wifi worked very well and the kitchen had everything needed for light cooking. Great location – an easy walk to downtown, but there are also several restaurants and sodas and a tienda within a three-minute walk. It was especially helpful that the house is managed by a hostel. The host, Jonathon, was so helpful in arranging our trips to the cloud forest parks. I’m not sure how we’d have done it in another Airbnb. He and the hostel employees were very kind and professional, even thoughtfully packing some fruit for us when we went to the park in the early morning. They also offered very affordable laundry service. I highly recommend this place!
La Fortuna Airbnb – The hosts, Wilson and Yoha, are very kind and helpful. Great communication! Yoha restocked us with supplies halfway through our two-week stay and even offered to help with cleaning. It’s a very nice apartment: the kitchen worked well, wifi was consistent and a good speed. When we had a rental car for a couple days, there was a convenient parking spot out front. The location was perfect – short (3 minutes) walk to downtown but in a quiet neighborhood.